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July 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (It Looks Like Some Reporters Need to Be Fired Today Edition)

Peter Baker and Charles Babington of the Washington Post:

In complying with White House "ground rules" on ... [Media Matters for America]: Under a purported embargo, which the Post said prevented reporters from revealing the administration's decision until midnight -- "too late" to contact Democrats for a response -- staff writers Peter Baker and Charles Babington quoted anonymous White House officials spinning the decision regarding the documents.... The Post article, headlined "White House to Release Early Roberts Papers," reported that the White House will provide materials from Roberts's time in the White House counsel's office while withholding the Justice Department documents. Noting only that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) had earlier "urged the representatives of the White House to be as cooperative as they possibly could" in providing documents, Baker and Babington justified excluding any Democratic response to the decision by noting that Bush administration officials "disclosed the new policy under ground rules requiring anonymity and an embargo until midnight, too late for Democratic reaction."...

And Lauren Whittington of Roll Call:

Suburban Guerrilla: Via Daily Kos, we discover that reporters get"exclusives" from the GOP - if they promise not to call any Democrats for comment:

Turns out Roll Call writer Lauren Whittington got the story from the GOP with the ground rule that she not call anyone else for the story. In a news media that has fallen mightily, this is just one more gross failure of established journalistic process (time for another blogger ethics conference?). Meanwhile, Lauren didn't just report a one-sided story at the demands of her Republican source, but then refused to ask any real questions...

If these stories are true, all three of these should have already been fired.


Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (David Ignatius Edition)

The Washington Post does realize that it would be better off publishing white space instead of David Ignatius, doesn't it?

Spencer Ackerman and Jim Henley write about:

Jim Henley: David Ignatius's insouciance on the prospect of civil war in Iraq.... One line in particular rankles:

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Iraq this week carried the implicit message that America's time, money and patience in Iraq are not endless.

The unmitigated gall. It stupefies.


The Future of Iraq

Doug Bandow writes at The Washington Note:

The Washington Note Archives: Recruiting Problems Should Create Cause for Reflection As most everyone knows, the Army and Marine Corps and Army National Guard and Reserves have been running into recruiting problems. The cause isn't difficult to understand. Indeed, you'd have to worry about someone who was enthusiastic about joining the armed services in order to fight in a war that: was based on completely false claims; has been badly bungled by officials who foresaw no opposition and didn't bother to acquire the necessary equipment (such as body armor and armored vehicles); has spawned a "democratic" process in Iraq that risks becoming distinctly illiberal, and has created an active recruiting and training ground for terrorists....

[I]f anything is evident in the aftermath of the administration's WMD intelligence fiasco, it is that the war was not necessary, but a matter of choice pursued for reasons having little to do with any direct threats to America. The fact that those most at risk in fighting -- as opposed to arm-chair warriors sitting around Washington planning -- such a conflict are increasingly saying no should create cause for reflection. There is nothing inevitable about how long America stays, or in what form it remains engaged.

If war enthusiasts (especially those enthusiastic young conservatives about whom I read who are now active on college campuses) can't seem to make it down to the armed services recruiting offices, the administration has yet another reason to accelerate plans to get out. It's one thing to contemplate conscription to preserve the nation from a hegemonic totalitarian menace. It's quite another thing for those who failed to serve yesterday to draft those who don't want to join today to spread "democracy" -- especially if the ultimate result is an authoritarian Iraq leaning toward Axis of Evil member Iran.

And a largely peaceful, somewhat orderly, relatively authoritarian Iraq closely linked to Iran seems to be the best attainable outcome, looking forward. The other possibilities are worse.


Wild(life) Party

There were twelve turkeys outside our windows this morning, two hens guarding eight no-longer-chicks. They scratched, and then moved on down the hill toward the creekbed and the blackberry... patch, we will call it.

It is remarkable how much more medium-sized wildlife we see on a daily basis here in edge suburbia as opposed to, say, up high in Kings Canyon. The reason appears clear: We irrigate. We irrigate up the wazoo. If the deer had species memories of what this area looked like 250 years ago, they would be amazed at the change. We have changed the land to provide much more food sources for opossums, turkeys, raccoons, skunks, deer, and like critters. Roadkill is an incredible bonanza for cathartes aura(1).

By contrast, we do not like their predators: the larger members of felis, canis, and ursus. There has not been a member of ursus americanus(2) up here by Little Grizzly Creek in a century, and the same goes (fortunately) for ursus arctos horribilis(3). Felis concolor(4) is occasionally seen by the mail carrier resting in the blackberry patch (though, somehow, nobody ever sees felis rufus(5)). I don't think this was ever part of the range of canis lupus(6) (although we hear canis latrans(7) once every couple of weeks.


(1) Turkey vulture.
(2) Black bear.
(3) Grizzly bear.
(4) Mountain lion.
(5) Bobcat.
(6) Grey wolf.
(7) Coyote.


Drug-Abuse Information

The Twelve-Year-Old says that "28 Days" is a much better piece of anti-drug abuse information than anything she sees in the schools.


Unusual Menu Notation

Le Cheval in downtown Oakland ("The price is great but service is marginal. However the food is just mouth-watering good!") has an unusual statement at the bottom of its menu:

price may be adjusted depending on attitude of customer


Yes, It Grows on Trees

Great days of television:

The Spaghetti Harvest: On April 1, 1957 the British news show, Panorama, broadcast a segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed to an unusually mild winter. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched a rural Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets.

"The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry," Dimbleby informed the audience. "Many of you, I'm sure," he continued, "will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair." The narration then continued in a tone of absolute seriousness: Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depradations have caused much concern in the past."...

  • The BBC has the original broadcast of the Panorama documentary available online in realvideo format. The realvideo player must be installed on your computer in order to view the broadcast.

Wages and Salaries as a Share of Net Domestic Product

Since 1970:

These two figures tell different stories. The difference between them is that non-wage non-salary benefits--overwhelmingly health and pension--are included in the second and not in the first.

From the perspective of workers who are not part of the salaried part of the upper middle class--for whom benefits are, we think, a large part of compensation--the first diagram is more relevant. It shows (a) the explosion of the wage-and-salary share during the late 1960s, (b) the rollback during the 1970s and the further downward push of the wage share in the early 1980s, (c) constancy up until the late 1990s, (d) a wage-and-salary share boom during the "new economy" boom, and (e) the collapse of the wage-and-salary share since 2000.

From the perspective of the salaried part of the upper middle class (or of the declining fraction of other workers with ample benefits) the second diagram is more relevant. It shows (a) the explosion in the labor share of income in the late 1960s, (b) continued rise through the 1970s, (c) a rollback during the early 1980s, (d) a decline in the labor share and then a recovery in the Clinton years, and (e) nothing terribly unusual for the state of the business cycle going on since 2000.

I find this frustrating. The national income accounting tells us that what is going on with benefits and their distribution has a profound effect on how we understand the recent economic history of the distribution of income between labor and capital, and I don't think I have a good grasp of what is going on with benefits and their distribution.


An Open Letter to Michael Kinsley

Do you really think that there is nothing that you can find that would be better to see in the LA Times than this line of c---?

David Gelernter: You might argue that dark-skinned people are a special case, given the way the United States has treated them. I agree -- we have treated them so solicitously, and worked so hard to suppress racial prejudice, that dark-skinned people owe their country the benefit of the doubt...

It's not just his own reputation as a writer that he is shredding. It's your reputation as an editor that he's shredding as well


It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Swopa of Needlenose Reports:

Needlenose | We Needle. You Decide: From the Department of Implausible Extremism. The Washington Post reports this evening:

Iraq's transportation minister... has ordered a ban on alcohol sales at Baghdad International Airport, declaring that the facility is "a holy and revered" piece of Iraq.... The alcohol ban heightened fears of some more-secular Iraqis that the Shiite Muslim majority might seek to impose a rigid interpretation of Islamic law in Iraq, traditionally considered to be tolerant in its observance of religious law. The order followed a visit Maliki made this month with other government officials to Iran, which is controlled by fundamentalist Shiite clerics....

"The issue is that the minister landed in the Baghdad airport and saw alcohol being sold there," Maliki's aide, Karim Jabiri, said Friday. "Given that the airport is a holy and revered part of Iraq's land, the minister ordered a ban on selling alcoholic drinks in the airport."

I think I speak for all of us here at Needlenose when I say that "holy and revered" is not a phrase that usually occurs to us when we think of airports. But perhaps the transportation minister's position as a government official has given him a misleading perception of the place.

I'll tell ya what, Mr. Maliki -- let 'em lose your luggage once, and you'll be humming a different tune...


No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Die!

Gene Healy's brain explodes as he contemplates the fact that Frank Gaffney and Max Boot do not hide themselves in shame 24/7:

AFF's Brainwash :: Gene Healy :: China's Earthquake Weapon: Did anyone catch this line in Max Boot's recent "yellow peril" op-ed, warning that China may be looking into "creating man-made earthquakes" as a way of fighting an asymmetric war against the United States? Meanwhile, neocon national security maven Frank Gaffney warns of a Chinese Pearl Harbor attack on the US via electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. It occurs to me, as it has before, that a capacity for embarassment is a severe liability for a D.C. wonk, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Having recently crapped the bed on the Iraq issue, one would think that Boot, Gaffney, Woolsey, Kristol, et al. would have the decency to maintain a studied silence on national security issues for a time. Or, failing that, to proceed soberly, cautiously into the discussion--rather than spinning doomsday-weapon scenarios drawn from a 1930's Buck Rogers filmreel. But D.C. is a town where you can't get laughed off the stage. Why bother to be careful and judicious?

And Jim Henly adds:

Pure CCP disinformation. Their real plan is to heat our internal organs with microwaves until we explode. Why does Boot want to distract us from that, I wonder?


Friday Catblogging

The Sierra Endangered Cat Haven http://www.cathaven.com/ is a highly recommended stop on the way from Kings Canyon to Fresno. We were particularly impressed with the cats that hide in the tall grass and then leap up to swat birds out of the air...

I'm told that the local male mountain lions do *not* come sniffing around when the leopards and jaguars are in heat. Perhaps the female leopards smell too different. Perhaps the mountain lions conclude that discretion is the better part of valor when they catch the scent of the two male Bengal tigers. "Nope. We know they're up there. But the local mountain lions just don't come 'round," they say...


How Many People Should Be Working in America?

Jim Hamilton of UCSD--one of the greatest of the masters of econometric time-series analysis--writes:

Econbrowser: How many people should be working in America?: Quite a few commentators have suggested that the labor force participation rate is a much better indicator of the health of the U.S. labor market than is the unemployment rate. I feel that quite a few commentators have this wrong.... The issue... is the divergent impressions one would draw about the current U.S. labor market depending on which statistic you look at. The unemployment rate, which reflects the number of people who say they're looking for work but are unable to find it, suggests that the U.S. economy is currently in significantly better shape than it's typically been.... The labor force participation rate, which is the number of people who are either working or looking for work as a fraction of the population, suggests that far fewer people are working, relative to the size of the potential labor force, than has typically been the case.... The difference between the two measures has to do with people who aren't working and who further described themselves to the BLS as not actively looking for a job. Large numbers of such people explain both a low unemployment rate and a low labor force participation rate....

It seems very hard to quarrel with the statement that any given month's value for the labor force participation represents the confluence of different factors, some resulting from trends that are in all probability quite benign, and some representing cyclical economic swings. Whenever somebody looks at such a statistic and claims to have inferred what it is saying about purely cyclical forces, they must have used some method for distinguishing between these two kinds of forces.

In my opinion, no such reliable method exists. One idea you might try would be to fit a linear time trend to the data, calling any deviation from that trend line the "cyclical" factor.... [But t]here's no good reason to assume that the factors that are contributing to the trend are in fact evolving in a linear, purely deterministic way....

The method that Bradbury used in order to arrive at her lowest estimate, 1.6 million, of the number of missing jobs... amounts to assuming that the slope of a linear trend fit from 1960-1994 could be extrapolated to 2001-2005 to identify the magnitude that we should normally be expecting for that figure. In the case of mature men, that's maybe not such a bad assumption.... On the other hand, for women aged 35-44, this amounts to assuming that the increase in women's labor force participation rates between 1960 and 1994 should have continued to climb upward, and, since it has not, Bradbury finds 1.1 million "missing" jobs in this group alone....

My point is not that there's a right way and a wrong way to control for trends, but rather that there are some fundamental problems with any way you choose to do it, and any conclusions you draw from these exercises need to be very carefully qualified...

One way to gain more information about what is "trend" and what is "cycle" is to take a look at other time series indicators that we believe have a similar cyclical component. When the labor market is cyclically weak, we believe that the unemployment rate will be higher than trend, that the employment-to-population ratio will be lower than trend, that average hours worked will be relatively low (since firms are likely to cut back both on bodies and on hours when their demand for labor is weak), and that the average duration of unemployment will be relatively high (because more of the fluctuations in quits, firings, and hires that drive the employment side of the business cycle are on the hires side). What do these series look like? Here they are:

The issue at stake is essentially whether the past five years have seen a stable value for the trend unemployment rate and a fall in the underlying trend for the employment-to-population ratio (meaning that our current employment-to-population ratio is actually close to, not far below, the long-run trend) or whether the past five years have seen a stable value for the trend employment-to-population ratio and a fall in the underlying trend value for the unemployment rate. The weekly hours series and the unemployment spell duration series seem to vote with the employment-to-population ratio: three series seem to say that the current cycle component is large, that there has been only a smell recovery from the business cycle trough levels, and that we are still pretty far away from full employment. Only one indicator--the unemployment rate--seems to say that recovery is well advanced and that the cyclical component has substantially shrunk.

This, however, doesn't resolve the mystery: why is the indicator that is the unemployment rate giving a different signal? What has happened to keep workers whom we would have expected--given the behavior of unemployment spell duration, hours, and the employment-to-population ratio--to say that they are unemployed from saying so when the CPS interviewers come to call?

Any Berkeley seniors who know (or are confident they can quickly learn) some time series econometrics and are interested in writing a macro-labor thesis, drop me a note. Some serious quantitative work on this would be genuinely useful...


Paranoia

The Wintel computer has been acting very oddly this morning...

Are there now viruses on the Wintel platform that note when they are being scanned and turn the machine off before they can be deleted? That would explain it.

Yes, I know that I am paranoid. But I'll always be paranoid, until the day when:

[f]or the humans remaining around, a moment of horror, staring at their displays, realizing that all their fears were true (not realizing how much worse was true)...

And when the Thermador oven-repair technician came, he said that his "real worry was not that the heating element had blown, but that when the heating element blew out it also shorted out the oven's computer." Why does an oven need a computer? Why does our air conditioner need a computer?

So far today we have found 196 pieces of admalware and 247 pieces of other malware on the Wintel machine. I guess we shouldn't have left it on and connectd to the internet while we went on vacation, huh?


Apologies Will Now Be Accepted

Matthew Yglesias writes:

TAPPED: July 2005 Archives: TRADING PLACES. Just when I was contemplating writing something about the odd thinking that seems to be going on in some pro-CAFTA circles, here comes a great example from Ramesh Ponnuru:

It may not be as important as this Geena Davis show, but CAFTA will do some modest good. I'm not wild about including intellectual-property standards in trade agreements, but the consequences of a congressional defeat of the agreement could have been quite bad. Now it's up to the administration to show some leadership on farm subsidies in the global trade talks.

This is what you hear a lot. CAFTA's not so hot, but it needs to pass for the sake of other, bigger, better trade deals. But here's the thing: Congressional opposition isn't stopping the Doha round, the Bush administration is. The White House isn't failing to "show some leadership on farm subsidies," they're totally intransigent. Worse, in order to get CAFTA passed one of the things Bush did was promise not to cut farm subsidies. Rather than building momentum for real global trade liberalization, CAFTA is helping to stall it.

And writes:

TAPPED: July 2005 Archives: GEORGE BUSH, FREE TRADER. The conventional wisdom has it that CAFTA needed to pass in order to maintain political momentum for broader, more substantive trade liberalization measures. As US Trade Representative Rob Portman explains:

"This became much bigger than Cafta, because it became a political issue," said Rob Portman, the United States trade representative. "It was important to our position as the global leader on trade, so we had to fight back, and to fight back meant being very aggressive, explaining why it was good."

So what did the GOP do to get it passed:

But the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, told him they needed his vote anyway. If he switched from "nay" to "aye," Mr. Hayes recounted, Mr. Hastert promised to push for whatever steps he felt were necessary to restrict imports of Chinese clothing, which has been flooding into the United States in recent months....

The restrictions Mr. Hastert promised could come soon. Within the next 10 days, the Bush administration is expected to rule on whether to impose import quotas on Chinese sweaters, wool trousers, bras and other goods.

Now that's why I call principled leadership.

I have an announcement to everyone who claimed back in 2000 that the Republican Leadership was committed to free trade. I will accept your apologies now.


Economic Insecurity and Democratic Policies

Jacob Hacker tries to combine politics and policy as he writes:

TPMCafe || Economic Insecurity and the Super-Jumbo: As Tom Frank says, the Democrats need a compelling message and an easily understood policy agenda to address the economic insecurity of American families.... How can Democrats take advantage of the fact that Americans are feeling (and, according to my research, actually becoming) more economically insecure? And why has the growing economic insecurity of Americans not seemed to help the Democrats all that much to date?

Let’s... dismiss... [the] theory... that Americans are actually happy with the economy... large numbers think the economy is on the wrong track and disapprove of President Bush’s handling of it. In the last election, simple economic models that successfully forecasted past elections using basic economic statistics, such as the overall growth of the economy, predicted Bush winning by a landslide. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. And part of the reason why it didn’t, I’m convinced, is that the basic economic statistics mask the much greater insecurity that ordinary Americans feel....

The project of battling economic insecurity is not a project for the next election; it is a project for the next decade, and even the next half century.... Will Americans rally around Democratic candidates who make economic security one of their defining campaign themes? Much popular political analysis suggests not. We are in a post-materialist age, we are told, in which bread-and-butter issues simply don’t resonate with popular majorities....

People feel that security is slipping away, and nothing motivates voters like the prospect of losing something they already have.... At the same time, Americans... want a forward-looking vision that accommodates the changes in the economy and society that they value, one that combines the goal of security and the ideal of opportunity.

My own view is that this dual challenge calls for emphasizing the value of insurance for encouraging families to invest in their future, just as businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged to invest in economic growth by basic protections against financial risk (like limited liability for corporations and bankruptcy protections). I also believe that it means linking economic security with the concerns about the balance between work and family raised by our very own Karen Kornbluh as well as others. But I will be the first to admit that coming up with a compelling message along these lines, much with less with effective and salable policy proposals, is a very tall order indeed.

What is interesting is that we have never before had--or not since the 1920s have we had--a Republican Leadership more interested in redistribution away from the middle class to the truly rich. You'd think that would be an effective message: your local Republican congressional candidate may understand, but the Republican Leadership is not on your side. But I'll let wiser heads than mine tell me why this is not the effective Democratic message.

What is genuinely hard is the policy agenda.


Tim Burke Critiques Jared Diamond

Tim Burke (who knows Africa) has an intelligent critique of Jared Diamond's understanding of Africa:

Easily Distracted: [T]here are some legitimate criticisms of Diamond to be made, both problems that are particular to his work and problems that are more general in sociobiological or materialist histories....

Diamond clings to the term "blacks" as racial category within which to place most pre-1500 sub-Saharan Africans except for Khoisan-speakers and "pygmies", even as he explicitly acknowledges that it is an extremely poor categorical descriptor of the human groups he is placing in that category. The chapter's central interest is the migration of Bantu-speakers across the continent, with the argument that iron working and agricultural knowledge were what enabled them to displace autochthonous Khoisan and pygmy societies. This is an uncontroversial argument, but the point is that it doesn't require a category of "blacks" to function.... There's no need for him to enfold the African populations of West Africa, who are not Bantu-speaking: their history isn't what interests him in the chapter.... Why not call Bantu-speaking societies what they are?....

Diamond has a tendency to exclude--not even mention or argue against, but simply bypass--deeply seated causal arguments and evidence that don't fit his thesis. Let me take the Bantu-speaking migration again. There's no question that iron working and farming were very important to driving their movements across the central, eastern and southern portions of the African continent, and were the central reason why older populations of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers were either absorbed into Bantu-speaking societies or fled from their advance. But Diamond takes it as a given that iron working and farming are sufficient explanation of the migration itself, that they made the expansion of the Bantu-speakers inevitable. That may be so, but he doesn't even bother to discuss segmentary kinship... and its possible role in pushing expansion. This is the key explanation that many Bantu-speaking societies offer themselves for their migrations, that when there was at some past point strife or tension among kin, a portion of a lineage would break off behind a charismatic lineage head and move on. That's obviously not the whole story, but I think it's part of it. Diamond's materialism is so confidently asserted and at such a grand scale that he doesn't even pause to defend it trenchantly the way someone like Marvin Harris does....

This is especially acute, as many readers of GGS have noted, with his views on Chinese history and the venerable question of why China did not industrialize but the West did. There's a tremendous weight of evidence that the general political traditions of the Chinese state plus the particular decisions of its political elite at key moments are much more powerfully explanatory of China's failure to expand or dominate in the post-1500 era than the big-picture materialism that Diamond offers.

Third, he is a bit prone... to... scooping up all the cases of human practice or culture that fit his assertions about universal patterns or behaviors.... Diamond is by no means as egregious in this kind of cherrypicking as some evolutionary psychologists are, but the selectivity of his evidentiary citation grates a bit on anyone who knows the ethnographic literature....

Fourth, on Yali's question, I have a few problems. Though Brad DeLong insists that Diamond only means his answer to explain the relative imbalance in material wealth and power between many non-Western societies and the West up to 1500 and not afterwards, I think it's clear that Diamond thinks that post-1500 events are no more than the icing on the cake, that the fundamental explanation of post-1500 inequalities and disparities in the world derive from the grand arc of pre-1500 development, from the luck of the geographical draw....

Because the grand argument of GGS turns on the slow accumulation of geographical advantage to people inhabiting the Eurasian continent, it sometimes ignores much more short-term material explanations which are potentially in and of themselves sufficient explanations. To explain the Atlantic slave trade in materialist terms, for example, you may need nothing more than the relative proximity of Africa and Europe, the trade wind system across the Atlantic, improvements in European nautical capability prior to 1450, and the relative lack of harbors plus poor habitability of the West and Central African coastline.... That['s]... a much more constrained set of factors with a much shorter temporal scale than what Diamond puts into play. And the Atlantic slave trade may itself be a nearly sufficient explanation of the expansion of the West after 1500, given the cascade of effects it unleashed....

Anthropologists and historians interested in non-Western societies and Western colonialism also get a bit uneasy with a big-picture explanation... that seems to cancel out... the many small differences and choices after 1500.... [I]f you want to answer Yali's question with regards to Latin America versus the United States, you've got to think about the peculiar, particular kinds of political, legal and religious frameworks that differentiated Spanish colonialism in the New World from British and French colonialism, that a Latin American Yali would have to feel a bit dissatisfied with Diamond's answer.

For me, I also feel a bit at a loss with any big-picture history that isn't much interested in the importance of accident and serendipidity at the moment of contact between an expanding Europe and non-Western societies around 1500. That seems a part of Cortes's conquest of Moctezuma, or the early beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, when West African practices of kinship slavery fed quite incidentally into exchange with Portuguese explorers who weren't there for slaves at all.(1) It may be that such accidents are not the cause of the material disparity that Yali describes, but in many cases, they're what makes the contemporary world feel the way that it does. It's not that Diamond argues against such matters, but he doesn't leave much room for them to matter, either.

Let me make just four points in response...

First, explaining the 1550-1850 rape of west Africa by the Atlantic slave trade requires more than "proximity... trade wind[s]... European nautical capacity... lack of harbors plus poor habitability of the west and central African coastline" (plus sugar islands where slave plantation labor can be exploited extremely profitably). It also requires a west Africa that doesn't have its own gunpowder armaments industry, and where small amounts of "advanced" European military technology can upset the balance of power and induce slave raiding-driven chaos for centuries.

Second (and this is tentative, for here I am out of my depth), all societies develop internal strife. Whether the strife is resolved by internal civil war and purge or by the breaking-off and migration outward of a portion of the society depends crucially on just who is over the next hill, whether they are friendly, and whether it matters whether they are friendly. Bantu-speakers' technologies of farming meant that they could support much higher population densities in areas they chose to move into. Bantu-speakers' technologies of iron working meant that they had sharper tools and weapons than others in areas they chose to move into. Without these edges, lineage splitoffs would have found migration next to impossible.

Third, I think that Tim Burke is right when he writes that "Diamond thinks that post-1500 events are no more than the icing on the cake." Diamond thinks that, given inequalities as they existed in 1500, post-1500 history is unproblematic--the interesting things, for Diamond, are what happened before 1500, so that's what he thinks is worth studying, and that's what he writes about. I think that Diamond is wrong: I think that post-1500 history is not the icing on the cake, and is very problematic. But it would be grossly unfair to focus a critique of Diamond on what he does not write about, rather than on what he does.

Fourth, let me agree with Tim Burke that most of the questions I think are most interesting about world history are not ones that Diamond has much purchase on. Europe v. China. South America v. North America. What happened to Islamic civilization after 1000. Diamond has little to say about any of these.

I even think that Diamond massively overstates the ability of his model to hel us understand sub-Saharan Africa's development. Yes, climate is different and a great deal of the Middle Eastern biotechnological toolkit is not directly applicable. But a lot of the biotechnological toolkit is. And the whole rest of the technological toolkit is. And it's not as though east Africa was cut off from news about what was happening in Eurasia: the most important seaport on the central east African coast--the House of Peace--is named not in Swahili but in Arabic: Dar es Salaam. The writers of 1 Kings were especially impressed with what the Indian Ocean trade fleets brought: gold, and silver, and ivory, apes, and peacocks.

Why, from 1000 to 1800, weren't the areas around Timbuktu and Dar es Salaam a lot more like the areas around Samarkand and Tashkent (in some centuries they were, weren't they?)? Diamond's model doesn't help us to understand why not. I don't understand why not.


Note

(1) Barbara Solow long ago convinced me that the westward migration of sugarcane carried unfree labor with it. From Egypt to Cyprus to the islands of the eastern Atlantic, the idea that one would grow sugarcane in plantations with overseers "supervising" workers who were not free to leave was a settled part of the mode of production from 1000-1500. The captains of Dom Enrique may not have been looking for slaves, but when they found them they certainly knew where they could sell them for a very good price: to sugarcane plantation owners.


Climate Illusion

Note to self:

Just because you brought the heat with you from California's Central Valley up to the High Sierra does not mean you will bring the heat with you back from the Central Valley to Berkeley.

Shorts and a t-shirt are not appropriate when it is 55F on the plaza in front of your office.


French Family Values

Paul Krugman writes about France:

French Family Values - New York Times: [G]iven all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as "productive." Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France - G.D.P. per hour worked - is actually a bit higher than in the United States. It's true that France's G.D.P. per person is well below that of the United States. But that's because French workers spend more time with their families.

O.K., I'm oversimplifying a bit. There are several reasons why the French put in fewer hours of work... some of the French would like to work, but can't: France's unemployment rate, which tends to run about four percentage points higher than the U.S. rate, is a real problem... many French citizens retire early. But the main story is that full-time French workers work shorter weeks and take more vacations than full-time American workers.

The point is that to the extent that the French have less income than we do, it's mainly a matter of choice... let's ask how the situation of a typical middle-class family in France compares with that of its American counterpart. The French family, without question, has lower disposable income.... But there are compensations for this lower level of consumption. Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn't have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.

So which society has made the better choice?...

Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth... write: "It is hard to obtain more vacation for yourself from your employer and even harder, if you do, to coordinate with all your friends to get the same deal and go on vacation together." And they even offer some statistical evidence that working fewer hours makes Europeans happier, despite the loss of potential income.

It's not a definitive result, and as they note, the whole subject is "politically charged." But let me make an observation: some of that political charge seems to have the wrong sign. American conservatives despise European welfare states like France. Yet many of them stress the importance of "family values." And whatever else you may say about French economic policies, they seem extremely supportive of the family as an institution. Senator Rick Santorum, are you reading this?


Aiming at the Bald Demographic

We stopped in Sequoia National Park at Wuksatchi Lodge, thinking that a night in a bed would have its advantages. (It didn't: overpriced, and air circulation through the lodge is absolutely horrible--definitely not worth it. We'd have been happier in our tent down at the Lodgepole campground.)

It was a different kind of place than I had imagined. I had thought it was a replacement for the hotel, cabins, and cafeteria that used to be at the Giants' Forest sequoia grove. But we found not trays and spaghetti-with-meat sauce but waiters and Mediterranean Pasta, Bifstek au Poivre, and Creme Brulee. We found not tube-frame camp beds and knotty pine walls but conference hotel modern.

The National Park Service's contractor appears to be looking for higher margin customers.

There was a card to hang on your door the night before if you wanted them to pack you a boxed lunch (four cheese, smoked turkey with provolone...). There is a picture on the back of the card: a happy family sitting on a sunlit rock high in the Sierra Nevada with a blue sky and high peaks behind them. The man: late forties and heavily balding. The woman: blond and mid-thirties. The child: five.

Marketing aimed at men with money to burn who started thinking seriously about family at age forty (or who started over on family at age forty).

Someone thinks that this is the prime demographic group the Wuksatchi Lodge should be chasing. Given the distribution of disposable income in America, they are probably right.


Department of "Huh?"

The U.S. government doesn't already offer protection to foreign diplomats in Iraq? Why not?

WSJ.com - U.S. May Offer Protection To Foreign Diplomats in Iraq: The U.S. military is considering offering protection to foreign diplomats in Baghdad after al Qaeda agents killed three Arab envoys this month, the American ambassador said Thursday. "Coalition forces.. are planning to look at this problem and see what could be done to fix the security for the diplomats," Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters. "It's very important for foreign diplomats who come here to have a sense of security."...


Newmark's Door: Rankings of economics blogs

Craig Newmark succumbs and begins ranking economics weblogs:

Newmark's Door: Rankings of economics blogs: Among the things economists are notorious for in academia is our intense--close to obsessive--interest in rankings. Rankings of journals, of particular papers, of individual economists, and of departments. (This assertion should be backed by some citations, but I don't want to make time to find them. Just trust me.) So I figured it was just a matter of time until someone produced a detailed ranking of economics blogs. Especially since I invited my many millions of readers to produce one over a year ago. But I haven't seen one. And a few minutes spent Googling suggests that there isn't one. So I guess it falls to me to begin this neglected but vitally important task...

On principle, I refuse to look further down the page.

:-)


Intellectual Garbage Pickup on Guns, Germs, and Steel

Sigh.

Time for some unpleasant but necessary intellectual garbage pickup on the critics of Guns, Germs, and Steel over at savageminds.org...

An ordinary human being, on reading:

Ozma: Diamond... argues that the inhabitants of this Eurasian landmass started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants than did prehistoric humans living elsewhere on the planet. There are pages and pages of discussion of wild plants with a large, oily seed yield -- the kinds of plants that would be good candidates for domestication. At first reading, my problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the "wild" baseline.

But my fuzzy doubts [about Diamond] are mere amateur ankle-biting as compared to the expertly rear-end-kicking article lead-authored by John Terrell of the Field Museum (full reference below). It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond's argument. It also offers a thoroughgoing critique of Diamond's thesis and evidence. Highly recommended reading...

would think that the article cited challenges Jared Diamond's belief that the inhabitants of Eurasia 12000 years ago had a larger and more promising array of potentially domesticable plants than did people living elsewhere, and presents evidence that Diamond's claims about Eurasian agriculture's ability to draw on a broader portfolio of plants is false.

The ordinary human being would be naive.

The article doesn't.

What the article does do is to point out that lots of people spent some time farming, some time hunting, and some time gathering (blackberries, anyone? there are still a few left); and to point out that people who are not-farmers alter the landscape (planted any Baobab trees lately? Set any forest fires to enlarge clearings so that there will be more deer about?). It goes on to claim that we simply should not talk of the "domestication" of particular kinds of plants or animals--or at least the article claims that "any knowledgeable fly-rod fisherman... has domesticated his or her surroundings... at least as skillfully as a farmer domesticates the Indiana landscape by turning the sod and planting corn and soy beans..."

Here we see the fly fisherman:

Here we see the cornfield:

Notice how the fly fisherman has "domesticated" his or her surroundings at least as skillfully as the corn farmer has?

Never draw to an inside straight, never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never trust a reference to an article in a journal of "Method and Theory."

In case anyone has any doubt, there really is a meaningful difference between "hunter-gatherers" and "farmers."

There really was a "Neolithic Revolution"--a surprisingly short period of time nearly ten thousand years ago when technologies of farming and herding spread throughout large parts of the world, and that the resulting greater availability of food pushed global human populations through a powerful upward inflection point. My friend Michael Kremer tells me that we do indeed believe that it was the case that global human populations were nearly stable at 4 million or so for the 10,000 years before 10,000 BC, and then grew forty-fold to perhaps 170 million or so by the year 1.

Continue reading "Intellectual Garbage Pickup on Guns, Germs, and Steel" »


Synergy!

Coffee and music:

Coffee and music create a potent mix at Starbucks: Tuesday, July 19, 2005 By Steven Gray and Ethan Smith, The Wall Street Journal: When Concord Records Inc. President Glen Barros was deciding whether to sign an Italian pop singer named Zucchero to a U.S. record deal this spring, his deliberations included an unusual consideration: Would Starbucks Corp. help finance and distribute the singer's next CD? More than once, Mr. Barros says, he has consulted Starbucks executives when pondering a musical act -- effectively giving them final say on whether to sign an artist. "If they'll be our partner," he says, "we'll do it."

Starbucks, already the world's largest chain of coffee shops, has emerged as an improbably potent force in the music business, able to resurrect moribund careers, enrage music retailers, and now -- the company hopes -- create new stars.... Starbucks has found success selling carefully selected music to its millions of loyal customers.... Mr. Barros knows how powerful a boost from the coffee chain can be. Last summer, his independent jazz label joined with Starbucks to produce and distribute "Genius Loves Company," a collection of duets between the late Ray Charles and performers such as Norah Jones. Helped by the biographical film, "Ray," and attention about his death, the record sold nearly three million copies -- about a quarter at Starbucks stores -- and in February won eight Grammys. No new Ray Charles release in decades had come close to that sales level.

That performance grabbed the attention of a music industry that has seen sales sink by 13 percent since 2000. Almost overnight, fierce competition emerged to supply one of a handful of CDs sold at any given time at Starbucks. The latest albums by Coldplay and Carole King are now in Starbucks. Two discs by Bob Dylan are due in stores next month. Most of the CDs Starbucks sells hit its shops at the same time that they reach traditional music outlets. The chain also offers some exclusives.... The push into music is part of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz's broader ambitions to make its stores the "third place" in consumers' lives, after home and the office. As Mr. Schultz, 51 years old, sees it, music and other forms of entertainment help draw customers and, in turn, drive up sales of Starbucks's pricey coffee and food. Starbucks offers high-speed Internet access at some stores. Last year, the company also opened a sprawling combination coffeehouse and music store, called Hear Music Coffeehouse, in Santa Monica, Calif....

Music sold at Starbucks tends to appeal to the chain's mostly adult customers, and generally reflects a sensibility similar to that of National Public Radio stations like Los Angeles' influential KCRW: moderately eclectic, often jazzy, and never noisy enough to disrupt a quiet cup of coffee.... It isn't clear how much money, if any, Starbucks makes from music. The company declines to publicly disclose revenue from CD sales, but says it's growing steadily....

Choosing the music isn't easy, partly because Starbucks's customer base is ever-widening, reflecting an increasingly young, multiethnic, transclass mix. Five years ago, about 3 percent of Starbucks customers were between the ages of 18 and 24, 16 percent were people of color, 78 percent had college degrees, and overall they had an average annual income of $81,000. Today, however, about 13 percent of the company's customers are between 18 and 24, 37 percent are people of color, 56 percent are college graduates, and they earn on average $55,000 a year.

When Starbucks carries an album, its stores often account for 20 percent to 30 percent of the record's weekly sales, and sometimes as much as 50 percent, Starbucks and music executives say.... The highest sales percentages often are for CDs by relative unknowns who aren't selling many records overall. In some weeks, the chain was responsible for almost 50 percent of newcomer Amos Lee's total sales, but only 6 percent of the 1.5 million U.S. sales of Coldplay's new "X&Y."

In a sales environment in which retailers from Amazon to Target routinely discount CDs, Starbucks often charges customers close to and in some instances more than the full retail price...

Where is the synergy here? Is Starbucks acting as its customers' personal music shopper? Or is Starbucks creating an affinity between the smell of its coffee, the taste of sugar, and the music it plays that adds psychological weight to the music?


Neal Stephenson on Lord Kelvin

Laying long-distance submarine telegraph cables:

4.12: Mother Earth Mother Board: As of 1861, some 17,500 kilometers of submarine cable had been laid in various places around the world, of which only about 5,000 kilometers worked. The remaining 12,500 kilometers represented a loss to their investors... long cables such as the ones between Britain and the United States and Britain and India (3,500 and 5,600 kilometers, respectively). Understanding why long cables failed was not a trivial problem....

In prospect, it probably looked like it was going to be easy. Insulated telegraph wires strung from pole to pole worked just as one might expect, and so, assuming that watertight insulation could be found, similar wires laid under the ocean should work just as well. The insulation was soon found in the form of gutta-percha.... But when immersed in water they worked poorly, if at all.

The problem was that water, unlike air, is an electrical conductor.... When a pulse of electrons moves down an immersed cable, it repels electrons in the surrounding seawater, creating a positively charged pulse in the water outside. These two charged regions interact... smear out the original pulse.... The operator at the receiving end sees only a slow upward trend in electrical charge, instead of a crisp jump.... Long cables act as antennae, picking up all kinds of stray currents... the weak, smeared-out pulses making their way down the cable would have been almost impossible to hear above the music of the spheres. Finally, leakage in the cable's primitive insulation was inevitable. All of these influences, added together, meant that early telegraphers could send anything they wanted into the big wire, but the only thing that showed up at the other end was noise....

These problems were known, but poorly understood, in the mid-1850s when the first transatlantic cable was being planned.... The Victorian era was an age of superlatives and larger-than-life characters, and as far as that goes, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse fit right in: what Victoria was to monarchs, Dickens to novelists, Burton to explorers, Robert E. Lee to generals, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse was to a--holes.... Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse fancied himself something of an expert on electricity. His rival was William Thomson, 10 years younger... infatuated with Fourier analysis....

Wildman Whitehouse predicted that sending bits down long undersea cables was going to be easy (the degradation of the signal would be proportional to the length of the cable) and William Thomson predicted that it was going to be hard (proportional to the length of the cable squared).... The two men got into a public argument, which became extremely important in 1858 when the Atlantic Telegraph Company laid such a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland: a copper core sheathed in gutta-percha and wrapped in iron wires.

This cable was, to put it mildly, a bad idea, given the state of cable science and technology at the time. The notion of copper... it was impossible to obtain the metal in anything like a pure form. The cable was slapped together so shoddily that in some places the core could be seen poking out through its gutta-percha insulation even before it was loaded onto the cable-laying ship. But venture capitalists back then were a more rugged - not to say crazy - breed.... Let's just say that after lots of excitement, they put a cable in place between Ireland and Newfoundland. But for all of the reasons mentioned earlier, it hardly worked at all. Queen Victoria managed to send President Buchanan a celebratory message, but it took a whole day to send it.... Whitehouse convinced himself that the solution to their troubles was brute force - send the message at extremely high voltages... he soon managed to blast a hole through the gutta-percha somewhere between there and Newfoundland, turning the entire system into useless junk....

Thomson's solution (actually, the first of several solutions) was the mirror galvanometer, which incorporated a tiny fleck of reflective material that would twist back and forth in the magnetic field created by the current in the wire. A beam of light reflecting from the fleck would swing back and forth like a searchlight.... An observer with good eyesight sitting in a darkened room could tell which way the current was flowing by watching which way the spot moved.... Thomson ended up being knighted and later elevated to a baron by Queen Victoria. He became Lord Kelvin and eventually got an important unit of measurement, an even more important law of physics, and a refrigerator named after him.

Eight years after Whitehouse fried the first, a second transatlantic cable was built to Lord Kelvin's specifications with his patented mirror galvanometers at either end of it. He bought a 126-ton schooner yacht with the stupendous amount of money he made from his numerous cable-related patents, turned the ship into a floating luxury palace and laboratory for the invention of even more fantastically lucrative patents. He then spent the rest of his life tooling around the British Isles, Bay of Biscay, and western Mediterranean, frequently hosting Dukes and continental savants who all commented on the nerd-lord's tendency to stop in the middle of polite conversation to scrawl out long skeins of equations on whatever piece of paper happened to be handy.

Kelvin went on to design and patent other devices for extracting bits from the ends of cables, and other engineers went to work on the problem, too. By the 1920s, the chore of translating electrical pulses into letters had been largely automated. Now, of course, humans are completely out of the loop.

The number of people working in cable landing stations is probably about the same as it was in Kelvin's day. But now they are merely caretakers for machines that process bits about as fast as a billion telegraphers working in parallel...


The Grand Strategy of the British Empire

A decade ago Neal Stephenson went to East Penang Botanical Garden:

4.12: Mother Earth Mother Board: 5° 26.325' N, 100° 17.417' E Penang Botanical Gardens: Penang... lies just off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. The British acquired it from the local sultan in the late 1700s, built a pathetic fort above the harbor, and named it, appropriately, after the hapless General Cornwallis. They set up a couple of churches and established the kernel of a judicial system. A vigorous market grew up around them. A few kilometers away, they built a botanical garden.

This seems like an odd set of priorities to us today. But gardens were not mere decorations to the British - they were strategic installations.

The headquarters was Kew Gardens outside of London. Penang was one of the forward outposts, and it became incomparably more important than the nearby fort. In 1876, 70,000 seeds of the rubber tree, painstakingly collected by botanists in the Amazon rain forest, were brought to Kew Gardens and planted in a greenhouse. About 2,800 of them germinated and were shipped to the botanical gardens in Sri Lanka and Penang, where they propagated explosively and were used to establish rubber plantations.

Most of these plantations were on the neighboring Malay Peninsula, a lumpy, bony tentacle of land that stretches for 1,000 miles from Bangkok in the north to Singapore in the south, where it grazes the equator. The landscape is a stalemate between, on one hand, the devastatingly powerful erosive forces of continual tropical rainstorms and dense plant life, and, on the other hand, some really, really hard rocks. Anything with the least propensity to be eroded did so a long time ago and turned into a paddy. What's left are ridges of stone that rise almost vertically from the landscape and are still mostly covered with rain forest, notwithstanding efforts by the locals to cut it all down. The flat stuff is all used for something - coconuts, date palms, banana trees, and above all, rubber.

Until artificial rubber was invented by the colony-impaired Germans, no modern economy could exist without the natural stuff. All of the important powers had tropical colonies where rubber was produced. For the Netherlands, it was Indonesia; for France, it was Indochina; for the British, it was what they then called Malaya, as well as many other places.

Without rubber and another kind of tree resin called gutta-percha, it would not have been possible to wire the world. Early telegraph lines were just naked conductors strung from pole to pole, but this worked poorly, especially in wet conditions, so some kind of flexible but durable insulation was needed. After much trial and error, rubber became the standard for terrestrial and aerial wires while gutta-percha (a natural gum also derived from a tree grown in Malaya) was used for submarine cables. Gutta-percha is humble-looking stuff, a nondescript brown crud that surrounds the inner core of old submarine cables to a thickness of perhaps 1 centimeter, but it was a wonder material back in those days, and the longer it remained immersed in salt water, the better it got.

So far, it was all according to the general plan that the British had in mind: find some useful DNA in the Americas, stockpile it at Kew Gardens, propagate it to other botanical gardens around the world, make money off the proceeds, and grow the economy. Modern-day Penang, however, is a good example of the notion of unintended consequences.

As soon as the British had established the rule of law in Penang, various kinds of Chinese people began to move in and establish businesses. Most of them were Hokkien Chinese from north of Hong Kong, though Cantonese, Hakka, and other groups also settled there. Likewise, Tamils and Sikhs came from across the Bay of Bengal. As rubber trees began to take over the countryside, a common arrangement was for Chinese immigrants to establish rubber plantations and hire Indian immigrants (as well as Malays) as laborers.

The British involvement, then, was more catalytic than anything else. They didn't own the rubber plantations. They merely bought the rubber on an open market from Chinese brokers who in turn bought it from producers of various ethnicities. The market was just a few square blocks of George Town where British law was enforced, i.e. where businessmen could rely on a few basics like property rights, contracts, and a currency...


Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (George Gilder Back in the News Department)

One of the scam artists of the late 1990s has reemerged as an intelligent design advocate--and he's using the Boston Globe to call biologist P.Z. Myers "crazy":

Pharyngula: Oh, come on, Boston Globe. They tip-toed around, avoiding naming me or the weblog, but I think everyone here can figure out what they're talking about.... Here's the article... The Sanctimonious Bombast of George Gilder. It's too bad they didn't give that link in the fluff job they wrote for Gilder, because he repeats the same nonsense again, and adds a new set of lies to the mix:

"But I really think those guys" -- meaning the scientists who attacked him on the weblog -- "are pretty crazy." Gilder pokes at his spinach salad and smiles wanly. "They must feel very vulnerable," he muses. Then he warns that if biologists don't take information theory seriously enough -- information theory and not Christianity being the basis for Gilder's embrace of intelligent design -- then they'll be the ones branded fools in the long run. Not him....

For an article that allows Gilder to whine about his unfair persecution, it is ironic for him to call us "crazy". And the key thing is that, as in my original complaint, Gilder doesn't know anything about information theory. Scientists do take information theory seriously, and we can see that Gilder doesn't understand it. Or biology. Or science in general. What he is is a fast-talking con-artist who thinks he knows something. The reporter seems to accept his glib babble uncritically...

One would think journalists would have a longer institutional memory about guys like this. Joseph Kahn of the Boston Globe does write:

The evolution of George Gilder - The Boston Globe - Boston.com - Living / Arts - News: By the mid-'90s, Gilder was confidently touting ''telecosm" (the convergence of communications systems and computers) as the next big thing -- and making a fortune giving speeches and investment tips.... "Most subscribers [to the newsletter] came in at the top of the market," Gilder recalls of those dark days, when even his chief financial officer filed a lawsuit against him. ''So the modal experience of the Gilder Technology Newsletter subscriber was to lose virtually all of his money. That stigma has been very hard to overcome."...

But what Joseph Kahn of the Boston Globe does not do is quote Gilder from an earlier article in Wired:

Wired 10.07: The Madness of King George: "In retrospect, it's obvious that I should've subtly said, 'Hey, things have gotten out of hand at JDS Uniphase, and it's not worth what you'd have to pay for it,'" [Gilder] says. Each month, he thought about providing a warning to his [newsletter] subscribers, and he decided against it every time.... "I'd think about telling people that they should sell half their holdings, and each time I'd conclude that my subscribers would be enraged...." Fully 50 percent of his readers had signed up for the report at what Gilder now calls the "hysterical peak" of the market. "Half of my subscribers would have been eternally grateful [for a warning], but the other half -- the new ones -- would've been enraged because they had just come in," he says...

One would think that Gilder failed at the time to tell his subscribers that he thought the telecom stocks he was touting were overvalued--you would think that would be a fact worth reporting, no? But it isn't--not for Joseph Kahn of the Boston Globe.


A Better Class of Critics of Jared Diamond, Please...

C. Northcote Parkinson was the first to identify the phenomenon of "injelitance"--the jealousy that the less-than-competent feel for the capable.

Here we have a classic case from the anthropologists at Savage Mind, who are both positively green with envy at Jared Diamond's ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique.


BIZARRE UPDATE:

Kerim of Savage Minds writes:

http://savageminds.org/2005/07/26/guns-germs-and-steel-links/: Addendum: Yes, if [Jared Diamond's] book [Guns, Germs, and Steel] had been framed in terms of “why, prior to 1600, did the west have more cargo” ... fine. But that is not how the book is framed. Nor do I think it would have been as popular if it had been framed in those terms (for the reasons Ozma alludes to).

But the book was explicitly framed in terms of "why, prior to 1600, did the west have more cargo?" You cannot read the first five pages of the prologue and fail to recognize that:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently from peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal toolsk other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others remained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities hae cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies.... [T]hese differences constitute the most basic fact of world history....

In July 1972 I was walking along a beach.... I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali.... [H]e asked me, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"...

I didn't have an answer then.... This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali....

People of Eurasian origin... dominate the modern world in wealth and power. Other peoples, including most Africans, have thrown off European colonial domination but remain far behind in wealth and power. Still other peoples... are no longer even masters of their own lands but have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists.... Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way?...

We can easily push this question back one step. As of the year A.D. 1500... [m]uch of Europe, Asia, and North Africa was the site of metal-equipped states or empires, some of them on the threshold of industrialization. Two Native American peoples, the Aztecs and the Incas, ruled over empires with stone tools. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa... iron tools... Australia and New Guinea, many Pacific islands, much of the Americas, and small parts of sub-Saharan Africa... farming tribes... hunter-gatherer bands using stone tools....

[T]hose technological and political differences of A.D. 1500 were the immediate cause of the modern world's inequalities. Empires with steel weapons were able to conquer or exterminate tribes with weapons of stone and wood. How, though, did the world get to be the way it was in 1500?... Until the end of the last Ice Age, around 11000 B.C., all peoples on all continents were still hunter-gatherers. Different rates of development on different continents, from 11000 BC to AD 1500, were what led to the technological and political inequlities of AD 1500....

Thus we can finally rephrase the question about the modern world's inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute history's broadest pattern and my book's subject....

The history of interaction among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries.... [M]uch of Africa is still struggling with its legacies from colonialism. In other regions... civil unrest or guerrilla warfare pits still-numerous indigenous populations against governments dominated by descendants of invading conquerers. Many other indigenous populations... so reduced in numbers by genocide and disease that they are now greatly outnumbered by the descendants of invaders... they are nevertheless increasingly asserting their rights...

Seems to me that these Savage Minds owe it to themselves to at least read the "Prologue" to Guns, Germs, and Steel.


We resume our original post: Assertions that Nigeria was one of the richest countries in the world after World War II and that California's Amerindians had as ample a portfolio of plants and animals to draw on as did the people of the Fertile Crescent are just plain embarrassing:

Savage Minds: I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show... painfully made.... So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly.... Ugh!.... The show is framed by the motif of "Yali’s Question."... "Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?"... [T]he show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth.... [O]ne would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.... [I]t overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do!... Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria....

As best we can estimate, Nigerian real GDP per capita peaked at $942 per head at the start of the 1980s. Nigeria had oil. But Nigeria was never, not by anyone's wildest dreams, not by any stretch of the imagination, "one of the richest countries in the world." An extraordinary degree of detachment from the reality of Lagos or from the technology and land availability of Nigerian agriculture is required for anyone to imagine that this was so. (See http://pwt.econ.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt_index.php.)

The gap in median living standards between the United States and Papua New Guinea today is about ten-to-one. And out of every hundred households in New Guinea, only two have the real purchasing power of the median American household.

Savage Minds: Kerim suggested Savage Minds mount a response to... self-described polylingual polymath Jared Diamond.... [W]e all conceded it was a worthy idea.... To explain why you don’t like the book would take more time than most people making friendly small talk want to spend, and –- worse yet –- your explanation will necessarily impugn the motives of people who do like it, a group that you now know includes the person with whom you are speaking. My own usual reaction in such encounters is to say that unfortunately I have not read the book but that boy, it sure does sound interesting. Alas, I did read most of the book.... Part the first is: white people are immeasurably superior to everyone else on the planet, in terms of technology, wealth, store of knowledge, and actual power, and have been so for a long time. Part the second is: this is not because non-white people are lazy and stupid. Part the third is: it’s because of the determining force that geographical and ecological constraints have exerted on human history....

I can’t exactly remember the Eurasian landmass part of the argument.... I don’t have any grounds for critiquing this part.... It sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but (given the caliber of the rest of Diamond’s case) might be ridiculous....

Diamond... argues that the inhabitants of... Eurasia... started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants.... [M]y problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the “wild” baseline.... Diamond likewise argues that the Eurasian landmass offered a uniquely amenable population of potentially-domesticable proto-livestock.... Now, again, this argument runs into the a posteriori problem... hand-waving.

Furthermore, in the lowland South American context at least, there is considerable evidence that human-animal relationships are in important respects conceptualized and experienced as relations between social equals, such that a pastoral, dominating, domesticating relationship is rendered “no good to think” (apologies to Stanley Tambiah).... The point, though, is that given the presence of potentially useful animals, it is not a foregone conclusion that humans will set about domesticating them....

I will admit I never finished reading GG&S....

Diamond's argument is that in a really big continental landmass stretching east-west--like Eurasia--somebody, eventually, will start domesticating animals. And if it seems to work as a lifestyle, their neighbors will copy them. And their neighbors will copy them. And so on. Somebody in South America did domesticate the llama--even though it was "no good to think" in such terms. It is indeed not a foregone conclusion that any one group of humans will start domesticating animals--indeed, almost none of the groups will. But it is a foregone conclusion that some group, somewhere, will try, and that what they learn will spread to those in ecologically-similar regions with whom they are in direct and indirect contact.

Diamond's argument is that in a really big continental landmass there will be lots of variation in animal and plant life, some of which will turn out to be useful for agriculture. Hence wheat, rice, barley, rye, oats--an impressive portfolio compared to corn (and a lot of people must have worked really hard over a long time to turn teosinte into corn) and... acorns. California Amerindians were doing the best they can at making bread and porridge, and yet they could only get as far as gathering and grinding acorns.

It does indeed take a very special cast of mind--or injelitance--to critique a book you didn't finish, and don't remember.


The Self-Reorganizing Foot

It is, however, highly cool to watch the little organic semi-nanobots reassemble the foot into its proper shape. They do do their work extraordinarily quickly...


The Blister as Big as the Ritz

Yes, my hiking days are through for a while...

Pain is not weakness leaving the body. Pain is the foot yelling "she kenna take much more of this, keptin" on the intercom...


Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (City Journal/Reducing Poverty in the Long Run Department)

it's a dirty job. Bradford Plumer reads City Journal so we don't have to:

Bradford Plumer: City Journal always strikes me as one of the most noxious magazines around... its writers... wade into decades-old debates... disregard all... research, and then flatly declare that liberals are stupid and conservatives were right all along about everything. Exhibit A is Kay Hymowitz's piece this month on how... legions of liberal academics... have kept people poor and stupid for 40 years... [and] the one true cause of black poverty is that most black children grow up in fatherless homes. Liberals, Hymowitz declares, need to step out of their "don't blame the victim" mentality and realize this hyper-obvious fact.

Well, okay. Plenty of liberals have been thinking about the importance of family structure for quite some time: she even mentions two (William Julius Wilson and Sara MacLanahan), and then there was, um, the last Democratic president--a pretty prominent liberal, when you think about it. (Hymowitz makes it seem like Clinton was only "forced" to worry about family structure in the post-Gingrich era, but in fact, his 1992 campaign speeches included lines like, "Governments don't raise kids; parents do.") Beyond that, though, the relationship between marriage and childhood problems--let alone wider poverty--is complex and deserves a bit fuller treatment than the shallow gloss Hymowitz gives.

As it happens, the other day I was reading a collection of essays called The Future of the Family, edited by none other than Hymowitz' hero, Pat Moynihan, with a literature review of the effects of fatherlessness co-authored by... yet another one of Hymowitz' heroes, Sara MacLanahan! And lo, the results are a bit more ambiguous than the City Journal essay suggests.... MacLanahan argues that... fatherlessness is associated with lower test scores, greater levels of poverty, behavioral problems, delinquency, etc. for children.... What's not clear... is why... perhaps poverty causes both fatherlessness and negative outcomes for children, in which case single motherhood wouldn't be the root problem. One study, for instance, found that "when pre-divorce circumstances are taken into account, the associations between family disruption and child outcomes become smaller, sometimes statistically insignificant." (Not all studies, though.) And then some of the findings are just plain odd. For instance, the academic achievement gap between kids in one- and two-parent families is moderately small in many social democracies like Sweden and Iceland--smaller than the gap in "neo-liberal" states like the U.S. or New Zealand--suggesting that a sturdy safety net can overcome the supposed disadvantages of single-parent families. On the other hand, the achievement gap is even smaller in Mediterranean countries....

Basically, it's just not clear.... The facts here aren't speaking for themselves, or else they are, but in ancient Aramaic.

[I]nsofar as the fact of single motherhood itself is actually a "problem" (and I'm not convinced it is, but let's suppose...), there are basically two remedies. One, we can try to reduce the number of divorces by, say, making divorce harder... that seems like a terrible option....

So let's look behind door #2. And door #2 is... reducing out-of-wedlock births in the first place. This seems like a pretty unambiguously decent policy goal, especially since 60 percent of all births are unintended.... Now the tried-and-true way to reduce unintended out-of-wedlock births involves teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize, yes, condoms and other "icky" items. (Hell, they can teach abstinence too, since that seems to work, though "abstinence-only" programs pretty clearly do not.)... But these are all pretty well-known liberal policy goals, I daresay.


Lessons From Medieval Trade

Avner Greif's book draft is online:

Avner Greif Book: Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade

  1. Introduction
  2. Institutions and Transactions
  3. Private-Order Contract Enforcement Institutions: The Maghribi Traders Coalition
  4. Securing Property Rights from the Grabbing Hand of the State: The Merchant Guild
  5. Endogenous Institutions and Game-Theoretic Analysis
  6. A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change
  7. Institutional Trajectories: How Past Institutions Affect Current Ones
  8. Building a State: Genoa’s Rise and Fall
  9. On the Origin of Distinct Institutional Trajectories: Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society
  10. The Institutional Foundations of Impersonal Exchange
  11. Interactive, Context-Specific Analysis
  12. Institutions, History, and Development

It's clear what I'm going to be doing today. I expect great things.


China and the U.S. Embark on a Perilous Trip - New York Times

The great tightrope walk begins. Somehow the dollar has to decline massively but slowly, yet somehow foreigners holding dollars must not see the decline coming and demand higher interest payments on their dollar-denominated assets. It will be a neat trick.

Louis Uchitelle reports:

China and the U.S. Embark on a Perilous Trip - New York Times : By LOUIS UCHITELLE: The Cassandras who hold this view are a distinct minority, like their original in ancient Greece. Still, the most prominent, like Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Board chairman, are hard to ignore. "The circumstances seem to be as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember," Mr. Volcker said Thursday, repeating an earlier warning in a February speech. "If people lose confidence in the dollar as a store of value, or lose confidence in the political strength of the United States relative to other countries, there is going to be trouble. I'm not saying a crisis is inevitable or that an orderly adjustment is impossible, but at some point big adjustments will have to be made."

The problem stems from America's persistent buying of much more from other countries, particularly China and Japan, than those countries purchase from the United States. The payment for the imports is in dollars, and because the foreigners do not use all of the dollars to make offsetting purchases here, they lend the excess back to Americans, who then use the loans to purchase more from abroad....

"The Asians have no choice but to hold onto our dollars," Mr. Glassman said. "If they dumped them, they would be jeopardizing their own development." To which Stephen S. Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley - whom many on Wall Street view as too pessimistic - replies: "Because nothing bad has happened yet, there is a growing conviction that nothing bad will happen."...

The challenge will come once the price of imports begins to rise. At that point, Americans will have to produce for themselves much more of what they consume - or pay a lot more for the privilege of importing. Ideally, the process would involve America's becoming a much bigger producing nation, even stepping up its exports to Asia, while Asia - and especially China - takes on more of the role of consumer. That is essentially the view of the Bush administration as outlined by Ben S. Bernanke, the newly appointed chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. "We probably have little choice except to be patient as we work to create" the necessary conditions for a reversal of roles, he said in a recent speech.

That is not an easy transformation. Americans now produce only about 75 percent of the merchandise they purchase, importing the rest. That is down from 90 percent or so a decade ago....

This time the housing bubble could burst if the flow of dollars lent from Asia were to slow too abruptly. The result would be a shortage of money to lend and a rise in mortgage interest rates, which are tied to the yields on the Treasuries that the Japanese and Chinese often buy in the lending process...


Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (David Sanger/New York Times Edition)

Eric Umansky writes:

Eric Umansky: Decontructing a Bogus Leak: ArmsControlWonk nails the NYT David Sanger, who hyped a story he knew was shaky (or at least had evidence was shaky), a week later was forced to row back a bit and flag what he had buried in the original piece, and now nearly three months later pens a Page One piece saying his sources were wrong and were passing along what normal people would call gossip.

That the NYT Page One'd that final story is admirable, though it would have been better if the piece also explained the role the Times played in hyping the bogus leak in the first place.

Anyway, it's not like the story was about an important topic with, say, major policy decisions hanging in the balance. It was just an article about one peaceful little country, with whom the U.S. has had no tension, getting ready to explode a big freakin' bomb.

I'm not sure I'd describe glossing over your role as a megaphone for disinformation as "admirable." It has reached the point with the political (not business) reporters of the New York Times that the first question you have to ask is "who is this reporter shilling for today?"


Pharyngula::Cats, candy, and evolution

P.Z. Myers on the non-sweet tooth of cats:

Pharyngula::Cats, candy, and evolution: What this protein does is detect sugar, and then instruct your taste buds to start sending nerve impulses up to your brain.... Cats don't get to experience that... their TAS1R2 gene carries a substantial mutation that destroys its function.... There is a small deletion near the beginning of the sequence that chops out 247 base pairs. This deletion puts the remainder of the sequence out of register... turning it into non-functional nonsense, and also generating multiple stop sequences.... Poor kitties. They don't even know what they are missing.

It's nice to have an explanation for why cats prefer fish to candy bars, but there's more to the story than that. It's also another piece of evidence for evolution. The cat TAS1R2 gene has been thoroughly blasted into uselessness, but there is obviously more than one way to do that. A larger deletion that took out the whole gene would be just as effective, as would a 1 base pair deletion at the beginning of the sequence. Any random scrambling would do. So how do you explain this?

The sequence was analyzed in house cats, but the gene was also examined in samples taken from a tiger and a cheetah. They have exactly the same mutation... "plagiarized errors ", a phenomenon that is most simply explained by common descent. The last common ancestor of house cats, tigers, and cheetahs had this mutation, and passed it on to all of its progeny.

We can also make an evolutionary prediction: I expect that lions, leopards, and lynxes will also have the same 247 base pair deletion... the scar of this ancient gouge in their DNA will be present in all cats...

One question: is there any sense in which it is... adaptive for cats to not like fruit? Fruit is, after all, a quick source of energy--easily digested calories. One would think that a cat that liked fruit would have more energy for the hunt.

Or is this just an example of genetic drift at work? The few animals that speciated into the ancestral cat lineage got this mutation, and it wasn't (very) harmful, so they didn't become extinct. And thereafter there was no way to undo it.


"Free Trade," Bush Style

The Bush administration commitment to free trade:

No WTO agreement on farm liberalisation talks: By Alan Beattie and Frances Williams in Geneva: Talks on liberalising farm trade came to a halt without agreement at the World Trade Organisation on Tuesday, slashing almost to nothing the already slim chances of a big breakthrough in the Doha round of global trade negotiations by the autumn. The latest round of talks on cutting agricultural tariffs and reforming farm subsidies, which have been continuing for several days, broke up with countries still far apart. Ministers had wanted the meetings to produce a broad outline of a deal on farm and industrial goods trade by the end of this week, when the WTO starts its month-long summer break. But the chair of the farm negotiations, New Zealand's WTO ambassador Tim Groser, said he could not produce a framework that commanded consensus. Participants said that continuing sticking points included the EU's refusal to go beyond a broad commitment to use a particular formula....

Meanwhile, participants said, the US continued to resist making concessions on domestic farm subsidies. The EU and the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries are pushing the US to restrict payments that compensate farmers for low prices. "We were looking for movement from the Americans and did not get it," said one Cairns Group ambassador yesterday...

The Doha Round is one of the most important things the Bush administration might be doing. And it is one of the things the Bush administration cares about least. Typical.


The Tragedy of Rudolf Hilferding

From Peter Gourevitch (1986), Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises (Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 0801494362) http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/0801494362/braddelong00, pp. 143-4:

As exports plummeted, so industry's ability to pay the costs of the labor alliance dropped. The assertions of the heavy industry groups now sounded more plausible... a revival of sales required lower prices, which required lower costs, which required lower wages and taxes.... [T]he [Great] Depression led immediately to sharp conflict with labor.

Labor found itself squeezed ever more tightly between its economic policy preferences and its desire to preserve a [Weimar] constitution whose political features helped guarantee labor's... power.... As defenders of labor in the market, party and union opposed the reduction of unemployment benefits, the pressure against wages, and the rollback of state expenditures.... [Yet] the Social Democrats felt compelled to support a prosystem government even when that government pursued economic policies contrary to their goals in labor markets.

Socialist leaders, particularly Rudolf Hilferding, the finance minister and leading party intellectual in matters of economic theory, allowed their economic ideas to constrain sharply Social Democratic politics. Their leaders saw no alternative between full socialization of the economy, for which they had no electoral majority, and operation of the capitalist economy by its own logic, which Hilferding understood by means of the same [deflationist] orthodoxy accepted by the [conventional] economists.... Hilferding rejected completely the deamnd stimulus ideas.... The trade-union movement had been persuaded to adopt... the WTB plan (so called for Wladimir Woytinski... Fritz Tarnow... and Fritz Baade...) which called for deficit-financed public works.... Woytinski and his colleaues were unable to overcome Hilferding's commitment to an orthodox capitalist interpretation of capitalism.

The SPD thus lost an opportunity as much political as economic... all circles of German society... were exhibiting considerable dissatisfaction with economic orthodoxy.... Although demand stimulus per se had no particular intellectual basis... the notion of government assistance was thoroughly familiar [to German industry]....

By 1932 political support for waiting for results from Bruening's [deflationist] economic orthodoxy had dissipated...

Great book.


John "Bug Food" Muir

John Muir called Crescent Meadow "the gem of the Sierra."

John "Bug Food" Muir.

It's true that it was the wettest winter-spring in a hundred years. And it is the hottest day of what looks to be the hottest summer in the memory of California Man. But these mosquitoes are absolutely amazing. And the gnats! Never have I seen such large dense clouds of gnats in my life!

Make that John "Bear Bait" Muir. There's an adult black bear 200 feet ahead on the trail on the west side of Crescent Meadow.

Well, that certainly gets the adrenaline flowing...


Canon del Rio de los Reyes

Kings Canyon is absolutely beautiful. How come I have never been here before?

I do have one reprogramming request to make of the Universe. It seems that whenever we head for the mountains, hot weather follows us--so that we are far hotter at 6000 feet than we are at our 250-foot-above-sea-level house (where we did not even get air conditioning until 2003). Last time we went to Lake Tahoe it was 97F in Truckee. When we went to Yosemite it was 95F at the Merced River Bridge (and boy did yesterday's snow melt feel good!). When we went to Banff it was 90F--and when we dipped down onto the plain to go to the Royal Tyrrel "More Albertosaurus Skeletons Than You Ever Imagined Existed" Museum it touched 97F.

And now 93F here at Cedar Grove.

One more reprogramming request: the trail from Road's End to Mist Falls is indeed lovely, but Mist Falls generates insufficient mist. More mist!


The Law of Large Numbers

I continue to shake my head in amazement as I consider the most bats* ignorant thing I have read all summer: the claim in National Review that in order to get a picture of income distribution and mobility in America:

Intellectual Garbage Pickup: you'd have to track hundreds of millions of individuals.... [N]one of this is reliable... the Panel Study of Income Dynamics... tracks only 8,000 families out of a U.S. population of 295 million individuals...

The whole purpose of the science of statistics is to tell us that this is simply not true. As long as you can take a random sample of your population, you can find out an enormous amount about the population from a relatively small number of observations. You can find out what proportion of rich people had poor paretns, or what proportion of twenty year olds think they will graduate from college, or pretty much any other average proportion that you want.

Now the "random sample" part of this is very important. But if your sample is random--if the fact that the yes-no pattern of observations so far makes it no more (or less) likely that you next observation will be a "yes"--then the law of large numbers tells us that the sample average you compute will converge to the true population average at a frighteningly rapid speed.

The standard demonstration of this is to repeatedly flip a coin and count the excess proportion of heads over tails. We know that--with a coin flipped and caught in the air by a human being at least--the population average taking all coins that have ever been flipped of the excess proportion of heads is zero. How many observations do we have to take--how many coin flips--before the sample average converges to this population average of 0% excess heads?

Let's see. Here's one run of 1,000 "flips" from Excel's internal random number generator:

Here are ten more:

Impressive, no?

Try some yourself.

You could have a population of 295 million flipped coins. Yet you don't need to look at "hundreds of millions" of them to determine what is going on. Looking at 1,000 will do.

This is the principal insight of the science of statistics. it is an important insight. It is a powerful insight. It is also not an obvious insight--that's what makes it powerful and important.

Yet because statistical studies sometimes produce results ideologically inconvenient for the Republican Party, National Review feels it has to pretend that this insight doesn't exist.

That's really sad.


Les Miserables

Kim Lane Schepple says that John Roberts is Inspector Javert!

Balkinization: Ansche Hedgepeth's French Fry: Kim Lane Scheppele: Now that John Roberts has been nominated... his few opinions written on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals will be scrutinized line by line. In the main, they seem, so far as I have been able to tell on a quick scan, to deal with fairly specific and technical questions whose answers seem hard to generalize into major constitutional controversies. But then there is the case of Ansche Hedgepeth. Ansche Hedgepeth was, at the time of her crime, 12 years old. She was waiting for a friend to buy a Metrocard at the Tenleytown/American University Metrorail station in Washington, DC when she committed the fateful act. She opened the fast food bag she was carrying and ate one French fry -- in plain view of an undercover police officer. The police officer placed her under arrest, handcuffed her and removed her shoelaces "pursuant to established procedure," as the opinion tells us. She was held at the local police station for three hours until her mother could come to collect her. Her offense? She violated a city ordinance against eating in Metro stations. The police had been instructed to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy in enforcing this ordinance, and Ansche Hedgepeth was one of 14 juveniles arrested for similar infractions during zero tolerance week.

The adults who ran afoul of the policy during zero tolerance week were merely given citations on the spot and were allowed to pay their fines later, as the local ordinance permitted. Minors were not eligible for such citations, however, and so were arrested because that was the only strategy available to police to enforce the ordinance. Given that police had been told that no infraction, however minor, was to be excused, any minor caught eating in the Metro was subject to mandatory arrest.

Her mother brought suit on Ansche's behalf against the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, asserting that Ansche's arrest violated her equal protection right under the Fifth Amendment and her right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Both claims failed. To the argument that age should be considered a suspect classification that would trigger heightened scrutiny in constitutional Fifth Amendment analysis, Judge Roberts wrote for a unanimous panel that it is not. As a result, the difference between the treatment of the adults and the treatment of children in the DC ordinance was subject only to a rational relation test, which Judge Roberts found it easily passed. To the Hedgepeth argument that Ansche's arrest burdened a fundamental right to be free from restraint, Judge Roberts wrote that no one has a right to be free from restraint when they have obviously violated a law under the very nose of the police:

The law of this land does not recognize a fundamental right to freedom of movement when there is probable cause for arrest.... That is true even with respect to minor offenses.

And to the argument that such a minor crime could not produce a "reasonable" arrest, Judge Roberts cited the Supreme Court's decision in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista which held that a police officer had not acted unreasonably in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he arrested a woman who had merely failed to fasten her seat belt. So too, Ansche Hedgepeth, could not rely on the Constitution to escape the consequences of her misdeeds. She clearly ate a French fry in clear violation of the city ordinance in the clear view of a police officer. No leniency for her. (Poor Ansche!) As a doctrinal matter, the Hedgepeth case might be of little interest. But it is one of the few decisions we have to go on to see how a future Justice Roberts would differ from the departing Justice O'Connor. As it happened, Atwater was a 5-4 decision in which Justice O'Connor penned the dissent.... Justice Roberts's opinion has a markedly different sensibility from that of Justice O'Connor, and given the similarity of the facts in the two cases, one can begin to get a sense of how Justice Roberts would alter doctrine.... Justice O'Connor in Atwater was clearly disturbed by the prospects of someone being subjected to a full-blown arrest merely for not wearing a seat belt. So she proposed a Fourth Amendment balancing test. As Justice O'Connor wrote:

There are significant qualitative differences between a traffic stop and a full custodial arrest. While both are seizures that fall within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment, the latter entails a much greater intrusion on an individual's liberty and privacy interests. . . . Justifying a full arrest by the same quantum of evidence that justifies a traffic stop--even though the offender cannot ultimately be imprisoned for her conduct--defies any sense of proportionality and is in serious tension with the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable seizures.

Proportionality analysis.... [T]he reasonableness of arrests for minor offenses would have to be determined in light of the state interest to be achieved through such an arrest:

Because a full custodial arrest is such a severe intrusion on an individual's liberty, its reasonableness hinges on "the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." [citation omitted] In light of the availability of citations to promote a State's interests when a fine-only offense has been committed, I cannot concur in a rule which deems a full custodial arrest to be reasonable in every circumstance. Giving police officers constitutional carte blanche to effect an arrest whenever there is probable cause to believe a fine-only misdemeanor has been committed is irreconcilable with the Fourth Amendment's command that seizures be reasonable. Instead, I would require that when there is probable cause to believe that a fine-only offense has been committed, the police officer should issue a citation unless the officer is "able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the additional] intrusion" of a full custodial arrest. [citation omitted]....

Police departments are no doubt grateful for the five votes on the other side. But those of us in the general public who are now subject to discretionary arrests for fine-only misdemeanors might feel differently.... [T]here was wiggle room to distinguish Ansche Hedgepath's case from Gail Atwater's -- wiggle room purposively left by the Atwater majority. Justice Souter's opinion for the Court positively invites a future distinguishing case when he notes that the police officer in Atwater was "authorized (not required, but authorized)" to arrest Atwater and that police needed to be able to exercise this discretion in the heat of the moment.... Had the police officer in Atwater been required to arrest the offender no matter how trivial the infraction, as the police officer was in Ansche Hedgepath's case, a reasonable judge might have concluded the arrest itself was not reasonable. Eating one French fry does not endanger others as failing to buckle in one;s children would....

Even though his statement of facts in Hedgepeth begins with a lament that "No one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation," he did not let his unhappiness divert him from what, in his view, the law required. And the law allows of no exceptions, no room for common sense to modify the strict operation of a strict rule....


Whither the Yuan?

The best debate on the yuan I have seen is this Econoblog by Nouriel Roubini and David Altig:

WSJ.com - Whither the Yuan?: July 21, 2005 6:38 p.m.: China's decision to lift the yuan's peg to the dollar marks a modest but important first step in overhauling its strict currency regime. The yuan has been strengthened, effective immediately, to a rate of 8.11 yuan to the U.S. dollar -- compared with the 8.28 yuan it has been set at for more than a decade -- and the currency will now be allowed to trade in a tight 0.3% band.... WSJ.com asked economist bloggers Nouriel Roubini and David Altig to take a closer look at the news and the numbers....

Nouriel Roubini writes: Last week I predicted... that China would revalue the peg to the U.S. dollar (by a small amount close to 3%-5% rather than a larger 10%-15% move), that it would move from the peg to the U.S. dollar to a basket peg and that it would create a fluctuation band around this basket. That is indeed what happened today... the band around the basket is still very narrow.... [T]he move is too small: It is too small to make a dent on the Chinese trade surplus or on the U.S.-China bilateral trade balance... the move won't appease those in Congress who want to pass protectionist legislation... the move may lead to even more speculative capital inflows into China from investors who will bet on further Chinese revaluation....

But this small move is a beginning of a much larger currency regime change in China and Asia.... In the past I warned against biting the hand that feeds you as the U.S. was aggressively pushing for a large Chinese revaluation while, at the same time, needing such Chinese and Asian cheap financing of its twin deficits. If a modest 2.1% currency move increases U.S. long rates by 0.07 percentage points, consider the implication of a 15%-20% move in currency values in China and Asia over time. It could get ugly for the U.S. unless the U.S. seriously tackles its fiscal deficit....

David Altig writes: Nouriel, not surprisingly, puts his finger on one of the key issues: How close is the new yuan-dollar exchange rate to the value it would take if allowed to float freely? In other words, how many shoes are yet to drop?... Owen Humpage and Pat Higgins... find that, although the Chinese central bank has increased the pace of foreign exchange reserves over the past year, much of this activity has been "sterilized."... [W]hile the Chinese central bank has been increasing the supply of money to accumulate dollar assets on the one hand, they have at the same time been engaging in domestic operations to reabsorb that liquidity with the other hand. The end result has been that the pace of money creation in China -- monetary base growth, specifically -- has not been accelerating, even as the central bank has appeared to intervene more and more to sustain the peg.

Why is this interesting? Because, again roughly speaking, sterilized exchange rate operations have no effect on the value of the currency, outside of a short window of time.... One possibility is that the value of the Chinese currency hasn't been, and so isn't now, as far away from its "fundamental" value as many people think. The second possibility is that the Chinese fixed exchange rate regime has been held together by the chewing-gum-and-chicken-wire device of capital controls. The latter possibility means that the announcement that China plans to loosen capital controls... is at least as big a story as today's announcement....

Nouriel writes: David, correctly, points out the role of sterilized intervention in China. One of the reasons China decided to change its currency regime is that this intervention was leading to two serious financial costs and vulnerabilities for China: 1. Piling up more and more U.S. dollar foreign exchange reserves would lead to severe capital losses for China... once the Chinese currency was allowed to appreciate.... Not moving the peg would have implied intervening and accumulating even more forex reserves over time -- to the tune of over $200 billion a year lately -- and thus even larger capital losses for China down the line.... 2. The forex intervention has been -- as suggested by David -- only partially sterilized (only 50% of it lately).... This increase in the Chinese monetary base has led to excessive liquidity creation in China....

As for the loosening of the capital controls, such liberalization will not -- in the short run -- lead to significant capital outflow out of China and prevent appreciation pressures. The reason is as follows: With the currency move today there is now a greater likelihood that the Chinese currency will further appreciate over time. Thus, international traders and investors, Chinese expat communities in Asia and foreign firms doing investments and FDI in China will have an even greater incentive to bring capital into China to obtain large capital gains once the Chinese currency moves even further. So, liberalization of capital outflows won't help in the short run....

The systemic consequences of this currency realignment throughout Asia and the world could be radical and have significant impacts on U.S. long-term interest rates, on U.S. financial markets and on the U.S housing bubble.

David writes: I remain less convinced than Nouriel that we have a firm notion of how much further the Chinese currency will appreciate or how much effect liberalization of capital controls will have on exchange-rate dynamics. We simply don't know how private decision-makers in China will respond when offered the opportunity to freely move their own financial capital about the world. I don't find it at all implausible that private accumulation of dollar assets could put a pretty good dent in whatever reduction we see from the central bank.

I am going to stick with Ben Bernanke's position (or my version of it): The really important question is whether, when the dust settles, the Asian taste for saving outside of Asia will persist. If it does, it is hard to conjure up a scenario in which a good fraction of that saving won't continue to flow in the direction of the U.S. If it doesn't, there probably isn't enough that can be done via fiscal deficit reduction to stave off the effects on the U.S. economy that Nouriel fears.... But the market, today at any rate, has responded in a fairly orderly manner....

Nouriel writes: I beg to disagree. If China were to liberalize its capital account... and stop intervening, the Chinese currency could appreciate by more than 20%, minimum. Think of it: China has a current-account surplus that is now growing to more than 4-5% of its GDP; it also has long-term capital inflows in the form of FDI that are another 2-3% of GDP; and on top this, last year it had hot money capital inflows that were another 5% of its GDP. Each one of these three forces leads to a currency appreciation; and this is why China was forced last year to intervene to the tune of $200 billion in forex-reserve accumulation to prevent the yuan from appreciating....

The hard part for China and the rest of Asia will be now to manage the massive speculative inflows of capital that are betting on further appreciations of the yuan and other Asian currencies. As the extensive coverage today of the news and blogosphere comments on the China move on my RGE Monitor suggest, markets are now expecting that China will now allow further upward movements of the yuan and of other Asian currencies....

As for the impact on the U.S., this depends on the factors that have caused the bond conundrum. Unless one believes -- a la Bernanke -- that such a conundrum is explained only by a persistent global savings glut, the impact of this change in currency regime in China and Asia on the U.S. financial markets could be serious. The effect of Chinese and Asian intervention on U.S. long rates is hard to measure but estimates range between 0.5 and 1.5 percentage points....

[W]hile I agree with David that a sharp reduction in the Asian and world appetite for the U.S. assets would be painful for the U.S. even if the U.S were to make a significant fiscal adjustment, the lack of such fiscal adjustment would inflict greater pain than otherwise....

David writes: I'm not so much disagreeing with him as much as cautioning that the web of effects that may arise from broad financial reforms are so complex that I wouldn't place very big bets on any particular outcome.... In the overall scheme of things, if you put any faith at all in markets' ability to provide best guesses of such things, the expected magnitude of RMB-appreciation looks pretty moderate.... [F]orward foreign exchange contracts were suggesting a total appreciation of about 8% over the next twelve months.... [I]t does indicate where those with their money on the line see the process heading.... It is in the interest of the Chinese central bank and the Chinese government to maintain a pace of reform that is consistent with an orderly transition....

Nouriel writes: [T]his is the beginning of a much larger currency move that, over time, will lead to a managed float a la Singapore and to significant capital account liberalization. I venture to guess that over the next 12 months, the Chinese currency will be allowed to appreciate by more than 10% and that other Asian currencies... will also follow.... [T]he large accumulation of U.S. dollar reserves by foreign central banks to the tune of over $500 billion a year may unravel.... This would... force the U.S. to make significant and painful adjustments to its private and public savings droughts, droughts that much more than a global savings glut explain why the U.S. external balance has been worsening over time. Then, U.S. private spending, both consumption and investment, may have to fall sharply -- driven by higher U.S. interest rates and a bursting of the housing bubble -- relative to U.S. output to make room for an improvement of U.S. net exports....

Finally, I am concerned about the financial consequences of an uncoordinated global rebalancing, where the lack of policy coordination between the U.S., China/Asia and Europe may lead to significant financial markets' volatility. There is now a huge incentive for hedge funds, prop desks and other highly leveraged institutions to try the Asian Currency Revaluation bet and go for a currency kill in Asia.... The stakes are so high that traders/investors may want to test how far they can collectively push such currencies and make significant capital gains on this speculative attack. Herding behavior and momentum trading are typical of financial markets, and the Chinese move today is a signal that it's open season on trying to push up a wide range of Asian and other currencies.... In 1998, Russia's currency crisis triggered the LTCM crisis and a 10% plus move of the Yen relative to the U.S dollar in a matter of three days....

David writes: Nouriel says "policy makers and regulators may want to be wary of systemic risks associated with such large capital flow movements." There are certainly no truer words than those, and over time I have become convinced that the truly important work of central bankers is to handle those episodes when the feared meltdowns come a'calling. It is interesting, then, that Nouriel references the 1998 Russian/LTCM crisis, which was the back-breaking straw piled on the 1997 Asian currency crisis. If I had to choose one example of a case where severe stress in global financial markets was weathered just fine, that would be a good candidate....

None of this is to claim that it's time to fall asleep at the wheel. Nor is it to claim that there aren't some tough adjustments ahead. We may well be at the beginning of an upward climb in long-term interest rates that many of us have long expected, and the reversal of the current-account deficits that all of us knew would come sooner or later. And though I am not much convinced by Nouriel's worst-case scenarios, I'm glad he's out there reminding us to not forget about them.


Michael Kinsley Needs Some Directions

Michael Kinsley is lost in cyberspace, and seems to visit only the bad neighborhoods.

He writes:

Cybercreeps Run Amok: Well, have you visited cyberspace lately? Of course you have. And of course the Internet has vastly improved life for anyone likely to be reading this. But as a friendly place to hang out, give me meatspace any day. There is commerce aplenty, but that's not the problem. The happiest and most peaceful parts of the World Wide Web are the places where people are buying things. The nasty parts of the Web are where people are doing what the Founding Surfers intended: expressing themselves and forming communities. Why is the tone of conversation on the Internet, especially about politics, so much lower than in the material world?...

The simple answer is that it isn't. Here are three places on the internet he might visit where the tone of conversation is at least as high as anyplace I have seen in the material or the conventional journalistic world--certainly much higher than the tone wherever various Kinsley proteges (think: Kaus, Krauthammer, Sullivan) hang out:

  1. http://www.tpmcafe.com/
  2. http://nielsenhayden.com/making_light/
  3. http://www.marginalrevolution.com/

Other suggestions?


Worrying About the Housing Bubble

Dean Baker is more than worried about the housing bubble:

CEPR Press Release (07/07/05): The ABC of the Housing Bubble: The “Housing Bubble Fact Sheet” provides an overview of the housing market and its implications for the economy:

  1. Over 2 million housing units are being built annually, while the number of households is only growing by 1.4 million a year.
  2. Some regions of the U.S. have experienced a 60 percent increase in real home prices, while the average for the country as a whole is 45 percent. Historically, real home prices have not increased... house prices have just kept pace with the overall rate of inflation.
  3. The collapse of the housing bubble will have a larger impact than the collapse of the stock bubble, since housing wealth is far more evenly distributed than stock wealth.
  4. The collapse of the housing bubble will likely throw the economy into a recession and require a federal bailout of the mortgage market. It could lead to a loss of 3.6 to 4.5 percentage points of GDP.
  5. Given how far out of line house prices have grown from fundamentals, there is no way to avoid enormous economic damage when the bubble collapses. However, the sooner house prices drop, the less damage there will be.

I can see three scenarios for getting out of things without serious damage:

  1. Interest rates stay low for a long time, so the bubblyness of the housing market deflates gradually.
  2. The housing market collapses, but the dollar collapses too. If the Federal Reserve then follows an accomodative monetary policy, workers who lose jobs in construction and consumer services will be able to move relatively smoothly into jobs making goods for export.
  3. The housing market deflates at the same time that businesses' animal spirits recover, and so workers who lose jobs in construction and consumer services will be able to move relatively smoothly into jobs making and installing capital goods.

A Supreme Court Justice Should Have a Better Memory

Shouldn't a Supreme Court justice have a better memory? It's possible to forget joining an organization. It's hard to forget being on its steering committee:

Roberts Listed in Federalist Society '97-98 Directory: By Charles Lane: Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. has repeatedly said that he has no memory of belonging to the Federalist Society, but his name appears in the influential, conservative legal organization's 1997-1998 leadership directory. Having served only two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit... Roberts has not amassed much of a public paper record.... [The] Federalist Society... keeps its membership rolls secret.... When news organizations have reported his membership in the society, he or others speaking on his behalf have sought corrections. Last week, the White House told news organizations that had reported his membership in the group that he had no memory of belonging....

Over the weekend, The Post obtained a copy of the Federalist Society Lawyers' Division Leadership Directory, 1997-1998. It lists Roberts, then a partner at the law firm Hogan & Hartson, as a member of the steering committee of the organization's Washington chapter and includes his firm's address and telephone number. Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Roberts "has no recollection of being a member of the Federalist Society, or its steering committee."...

Then it gets really weird:

Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard A. Leo said that either he or another official of the organization recruited Roberts for the [steering] committee.... Membership in the sense of paying dues was not required as a condition of inclusion in a listing of the society's leadership, Leo said....

[T]he society is tolerant of those who come to its meetings or serve on committees without paying dues. "John Roberts probably realized pretty quickly he could take part in activities he wanted to" without being current on his dues, Whelan said.... In 2001, after he was nominated by President Bush for the seat he currently holds on the court of appeals, Roberts spoke to Post reporter James V. Grimaldi and asked him to correct an item Grimaldi had written that described Roberts as a member of the Federalist Society. In a subsequent column, Grimaldi wrote that Roberts "is not and never has been a member of the Federalist Society, as previous reported in this column."...

How much are Federalist Society membership fees? $100 per person a year? Would you want a cheepskate on the Supreme Court?


Unfunded Entitlements and Default Savings Plans

Wow.

I had thought one thing I would never see would be Martin Feldstein endorsing a large, unfunded entitlement expansion:

WSJ.com - Saving Social Security: By MARTIN FELDSTEIN: July 15, 2005; Page A10: A recent proposal by House and Senate Republicans marks the start of the legislative process to implement President Bush's approach to Social Security reform. The fundamental principle is to supplement traditional pay-as-you-go Social Security with investment-based personal retirement accounts. Although the new congressional plan is not a complete solution to long-run problems, it's an excellent starting point. By using the Social Security surpluses that are projected between now and 2017, it lays the foundation for personal retirement accounts without diverting the payroll tax needed to fund current benefits...

It also reduces government net revenues without reducing future government commitments to pay money. The message discipline required of practicing Republican economists is very harsh indeed.

The rest of the op-ed is quite good:

Adding voluntary savings through salary deductions to these personal retirement accounts would substantially strengthen this reform.... The key to the success of such a voluntary add-on plan is to combine automatic enrollment with the ability of each individual to opt out... participation rates of 80% or more even when there are no employer matching contributions... the "default option" -- whether you are automatically in unless you decline, or automatically out unless you enroll -- has a powerful effect on what individuals choose to do....

The personal retirement accounts would not replace traditional Social Security but would supplement the more limited pay-as-you-go benefits that would result as the aging of the population leaves fewer workers per retiree.... The automatic enrollment feature would also increase national saving, a high priority in its own right. A higher national saving rate would finance investment in plant and equipment that raises productivity and produces the extra national income to finance future retiree benefits. A higher national saving rate would also reduce dependence on capital from abroad and would therefore shrink our trade deficit....

The aging of the population means that the existing pay-as-you-go Social Security program cannot by itself provide adequate retirement incomes without a very large increase in the payroll tax rate.... Supplementing the traditional pay-as-you-go benefits with investment-based personal retirement accounts financed by a combination of the projected surpluses and voluntary automatic savings would eliminate the need for any rise in Social Security taxes while providing a secure source of income for future retirees.

But funding them by uncapping FICA would be much, much better.